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Maple Syrup, The Essence of Spring

Article and photography by JP Campbell

In West Quebec it’s not unusual to mark the true beginning of Spring as the day the sap begins to run. This year it was March 31st. Immediately the core crew at the sugarbush were called to action.

The path to the Sugarshack
The path to the Sugarshack

First the trees must be tapped. In preparation snowmobile trails are made through the ‘main routes’ across the bush. The tappers branch off from these to prepare the trees. The Maples selected are at least 8” in diameter. In our location, a crew of two crosses the hills on snowshoes. The first member has a drill with a 7/16ths bit and drills at least one hole 2 1/2” deep on the sunny side of the tree. The second follows behind. He or she will sterilize each tap then hammer it in the and attach the pail and cover. The cover gives the pail protection from fragile winter bark and, god

Dominion & Grimm for generations the most common name in the bush.
Dominion & Grimm for generations the most common name in the bush.

forbid, rain. With the easiest areas, tapped collection can begin and the tappers head to more distant or difficult terrain. Our crew chief Don, believes we’ve tapped 450 trees this season and is already talking about more next year!

The crew has so far avoided modern commercial collection. There are no plastic tubes here. Collecting by hand is great exercise, puts one in touch with the silence of the forest and adds additional pride in the final product. That being said this year’s snow conditions give one pause. The snow is like slush four feet deep. Hills are crossed and the sap is emptied into pails.  Even with snowshoes you are

Donald examines the filters at the collection tank
Donald examines the filters at the collection tank

going to go in up to a hip. I say hip because, without notice, it’s always one leg that goes down and even as you fall the only thought is not to lose a drop of the precious sap. The merits of commercial methods is obvious but I’ve joined a stubborn bunch.

In remote areas, the buckets are emptied into barrels for collection by snowmobile and trailer. Close to the sugarshack you’re on your own and must carry the buckets back. At the shack the sap is poured  through a double filter into a large barrel. From there it will be pumped up behind the shack into a covered holding tank. At this point gravity feeds it inside to the evaporator.

TheEvaporatorIf you haven’t picked up on it yet, this operation is pretty ‘old school’. The evaporator is, of course, wood fired and that demands care. Cut wood must be available. The furnace must be fed and fed properly. The boiling sap must be monitored. A good boil is required but, imagine your kitchen stove, you do not want dozens of gallons of sticky fluid boiling over. The experienced eye of the crew chief is never far away, which is a good thing. The crew chief will also grade the final product. Based on colour and then viscosity this is something that I have yet to take part in. The season is still young.

TheBoilThe final part of the process is the bottling. This will be familiar to anyone who’s canned or made wine. The keys here are proper sterilization and a good tight seal.

I am sure I have left out so much that I already take for granted. I am exhausted and will return to the bush, with luck, everyday until the end of the season. Forgive me.

At the same time I encourage everyone with access to maples to make their own syrup if only in your own kitchen. It can be a fun family project and I can also say one of the very best syrups I tasted last year was homemade.

Thanks to the crew: Donald, Ian, Roseanne and the dozens of others who help out.

The evaporator firebox.
The evaporator firebox.

Sugarbush Sugarshack

Story and photographs by JP Campbell, voiceover by Lew Williams.

Winter arrived early and stayed. Now it’s March and even in this deep freeze the longer days hint at the Spring to come.

Trees - Photo by JP Campbell
Trees – Photo by JP Campbell

I embrace Winter if only to maintain sanity. Life in a little old cottage on the Gatineau river can be a challenge. What lies just, just, around the corner, though, has become my favourite time of the year. The sun will be bright. Temperatures will hover above zero by noon and just dip down to freezing at night. It is sugarbush season.

Every Canadian knows Maple syrup. Commercial syrup operations are even popular tourist destinations. Eggs, pancakes, and sausages come slathered in golden sweetness. In my part of the world, West Quebec, sleigh rides and minstrels are often part of the scene. It’s a lovely little escape for my urban friends. My sugarbush season is different and the result of a challenge.

I had been given an unlabelled bottle of syrup by my friend Ian. It was dark, smooth, and the sweetness seemed simply part of the whole experience. I had to have more. Where could I get it?

“Well, if you want a supply you can come and help work in the bush” he smiled. He knew he had my attention as he sketched out a map on a napkin.

ShackinWoodsShoesThe next afternoon I was on my way. Hidden between the highway and river is a century old farm owned by Don. Around the farm are hundreds of hilly acres  covered with Acer saccharum the sugar maple. My host just smiled and nodded when I introduced myself as Ian’s friend and we slowly walked ten minutes up a skido-packed  trail from the farm yard to the top of a hill. Running around us and playing in the snow were several of the setters Don raises and trains. I was not going to see a typical commercial operation.

DogOnTable - Photo by JP Campbell
DogOnTable – Photo by JP Campbell

Nestled in a small clearing, picnic tables, snow shoes and pails surround the cabane à sucre. Don supervises the sugarbush as a co-op of family and friends with Ian as his lieutenant. It’s a pretty traditional setup. The surrounding trees are tapped. The sap is collected and brought back to the shack to be boiled down. In the furthest parts of the woods the pails of sap are ferried by skido and trailer. There are no gravity fed tubes running through the forest here. Don pointed to some snowshoes, handed me a pail and told me to  start collecting right on the nearby hill. With a wave and a promise to return he headed off.

TapholeThe trees had already been tapped. I noticed that the older trees with a substantial girth often had two taps and their buckets attached. I started to empty the buckets into my pail immediately. I was about to learn my first sugarbush lesson. If you’re collecting the liquid gold on a hillside start at the bottom and work your way up! Not only is it easier to carry the soon heavy pail it is also easier to manoeuvre with said pail on showshoes. It’s a mistake you don’t repeat.

I returned to the shack with minimal spillage sweating from my labour and from having worn too many layers of clothing. Don had returned with Ian and was waiting to add my pail to the holding tank. I promised to be back the next afternoon.

Sugarbush pails Photo by JP Campbell
Sap buckets – Photo by JP Campbell

It was the next day that had me hooked. There was no sign of life at the farm or in the bush with the exception of a setter who followed me along the trail. At the cabane there was evidence of a party around the barbeque pit. Snowshoes on I slowly began emptying buckets. The sun beamed down through the branches bright and warm. Jay was called and disappeared.

I suppose I must have been twenty trees along my way when I heard a sound. I stopped. Ping. Long pause. Ping. Sap was falling into the first bucket I had emptied. It was the only sound in the woods.

I returned everyday. I stacked wood and stoked the boiler. I met my co-workers and had post-collection wine with friends. On the weekends whole families showed up and the hills were filled with the sounds of laughing children. When the season ended there was a party in the barn where everyone ate and drank and the music was live and real.

I remind myself the season is just a few weeks away. The cold snap has to end. This year I will return to collect the sap and, perhaps, have the opportunity to learn more about the boiling down process.

Come on Spring!

DogOnGuard